The Big Bang: How a Fireworks Company Keeps Business Booming

by Vanessa Richardson on December 31, 2010
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After setting off fireworks for New Year’s, Western Display Fireworks will immediately start getting ready for it’s biggest business day of 2011 — the Fourth of July.

The company, run by the Godet family since 1948, will have its fireworks, with such names as “Gold Glitter” and “Red Tail Thunder,” sparkle at 300-plus locations across the Pacific Northwest. Until then, the fireworks sit in storage units in the family’s forested 155 acre-property in Canby, Oregon.

Western Display is the biggest fireworks display company in the Northwest, and while it has hundreds of temporary employees, it only has 12 full-timers, four of whom are Godet family members. The family gets approximately 450 orders for fireworks displays every year, two-thirds of which are for July 4. The cost of the fireworks events range from $5,000 to six figures. The recession has not slowed business. Events like Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival and the Des Moines Waterland Festival count on the fireworks to bring in the crowds, says Heather Godet, Western Display’s marketing director and great-granddaughter of the company’s founder. “It’s kind of a necessity if they want a good turnout.”

In the six months leading up to July 4, employees work 16-hour days. But there are other events they focus on, too, including the fireworks for Seattle Seahawks games. When the Christmas tree in downtown Seattle was lit, Western Display set off fireworks from the rooftop of Macy’s department store on the square.

The business has become more complex than you’d expect. Western Display has moved from hand-fired to computer-run displays that control pre-designed fireworks. Two laptops are programmed to send timed signals to a series of switchboards that control different fuses. “The basic technology of fireworks hasn’t changed, but the manufacturing process has been refined,” says Godet. “It’s safer and more predictable.”

But Western Display still hand fires many events, usually smaller ones, a method used since founder Mickey Weygandt, a former farmer, started the company in 1948. (He exported his crops to China and was often offered fireworks as payment.) “With hand firing, you’re in the trenches lighting each shell, but there’s a lot of camaraderie with it,” says Godet.

The downside is that as a fireworks company, Western Display is required to fill out tons of paperwork, including federal state and local permits to meet safety regulations. And having a business that is primarily focused around one day every year is stressful, but Godet says it’s worth it when she meets people from small towns across the Pacific Northwest that appreciate what her company does. “They’re all so proud and so excited about their town’s display.”

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